© 2020, MJ Ostrander
Pacifico “Peaceful” Joe was the name I gave to my last canine. We met by chance under circumstances that I believe did us both a great deal of good. In the spring of 1994, I was being laid-off for the first time from a job I’d held for ten years due to consolidation of five field offices. I was feeling the full range of emotions that typically surround such an event. Because of this, my outlook was not great when a co-worker and I went to lunch early in the last week on the job.
Crossing the street, it was impossible not to notice a large dog standing on the sidewalk. Because my family and I had owned, loved and trained several members of the breed, the dog, while looking underweight, stressed and neglected, was obviously a well-bred, fully intact male German Shepherd. I believed he had been temporarily left there while his owner went into the building. Irresponsible, but I’d seen a lot of sad stuff downtown.
He was still there an hour later. A few people stood around and asking after him, a man told me the dog had been there for over three hours and had never left a ten-foot circle. Thankfully, some good Samaritan had given him some water. Despite the adverse conditions, when I asked the giant to sit, he sat without hesitation. I told him down, and he dropped like a stone. Moving very close to him, I noticed he had chain link (not a choke collar) embedded in the back of his neck. The site looked painful and was infected in several spots. I patted his broad head and his tail thumped.
If I’d had my way, I would have taken him then and there. But a cop said state law required they hold him for seventy-two hours for a lost/stolen/sick dog check. That was okay. The Animal Protective League (APL) was good. But the APL had refused to take him. The dog was going to the Cleveland Pound. The one across the river where they took the “killer” dogs. Where they euthanized after a couple of weeks. I got all the information I needed from the officer and left the scene, hating that I’d been forced to leave that beautiful animal behind, but hopeful I stood a decent chance at adoption.
The next three days were anxious for me, not least because there were a few people in the crowd around the dog that expressed interest in him. I called the pound twice on each of the three days to ask if anyone had claimed him, but no one had and there were no reports of a stolen dog of his description. The pound opened at ten in the morning. I was there at eight, the only car in the visitor’s lot. If a car did happen to pull in, I leaped from my mini-van and to the door so that I could be first in line. I smile when I recall those hours. But at last I was inside! I paid the fee and took him away. I was loth to put him through more, but I’d pre-scheduled a veterinary appointment. The pound had removed the obscene chain link, but the infection needed better care and a comprehensive check-up and full range of shots were in order.
I took him from the vets to a local park with a large field. I had a couple of leads that I attached together to make one long leash. Nobody else was there. I let him wander out to the full length of the leads and then ran with him and let him run around me in a glorious circle of freedom. The pain, stress and tension had left his eyes. There are few moments in my life that have given me more joy than seeing the happy transformation in those noble, amber brown eyes.
A month later, I was grooming him. He needed a lot of that to bring out the shine in his black, tan and sable coat to help him once again become the jaw-dropping handsome guy he had once been. I was working near his ears when for the first time I noticed a numerical tattoo in one of his ears. I freaked inside. I knew that tattoos were common on the inside of the thigh on valuable dogs, but I had also heard only the military and law enforcement tattooed the ear.
I confirmed this with a breeder as well as an Army veteran who had been a K-9 handler in Vietnam. What’s more, someone had put a great deal of obedience training into Joe. He worked better off lead then on. These facts gave me much cause for thought. Two other behaviors emerged that made me further question his past. He was always an absolute gentleman. Except around July Fourth. The pop-pop-pop of small firecrackers caused him to rush, savagely barking, along the six-foot board on board fencing I’d had installed around my backyard. Far from being afraid of fireworks, he wanted at ‘em! Ruh-roh. He also had a problem with African American men in uniform and I very quickly learned to close the front door when our dark-skinned mailman was due to show. What was that all about? Hadn’t the pound looked for a tattoo? What if he’d been stolen a long time before we met, had fallen off the radar and had once been something far more than I’d ever imagined?
Obviously, I had a dilemma. I pondered like a judge whether to have authorities run the tattoo number. This dog was special. Quite special. I had no right to ignore what I knew and deprive him of a reunion with the people who must have profoundly missed him. On the other hand, I had reason to fear that in doing the right thing, he could be returned to the people who had abused him. In the end, I refused to take the risk. I told myself that when the day came his life ended, I would have the number run.
Joe was about six years old at the time I adopted him. There were tough days in our life together when I put my arms around his massive neck and was comforted. I believed him to be content with the life I was giving him, but there were times when he seemed what I will call a little sad, as if missing his past and the people in it. Maybe it was just my imagination. After all, his was a serious nature. Every interaction he had with people was gentle. Sweetest of all was the way he liked to rest his great head on my thigh so I could scratch behind his ears.
At about twelve years old he began bleeding from his nose. Not a couple of drops, but truly hemorrhaging. The vet ruled out cancer but could not make a definitive diagnosis. Sadly, there were two other episodes like the first. At the same time, he began having increasing difficulty in standing. His muzzle was growing gray, and our walks were necessarily much shorter. Clearly, his health was declining, his life uncomfortable. It was time.
I am not proud of it, but I could not witness the needle. The vet’s office knew the situation, knew how our story had begun. The assistant graciously understood my cowardice and I left quickly, never looking back. I have regretted those last minutes for two decades.
I never did have the tattoo number checked. I’ve never stopped missing him. A thousand happy memories involving Joe have passed through my mind while I wrote this. I have never assigned overly human characteristics to dogs. Why would I insult them so? But I bitterly wish I would have stayed to the end, to stroke his noble head and to tell him once more, “Good boy, Joe. You’re a good boy.”